In 1947, Congress proposed the 22nd amendment that would officially limit any US president to two terms of four years. But while the maximum of two terms was new, the length of each term was not so – the presidents had served four years each since George Washington’s tenure.
Why are the President’s terms of office long?
In May 1787, representatives of all states except Rhode Island gathered in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, where they planned to update the articles of the Confederation and give more power to the practically powerless federal government. In the end, they drafted a new document ̵
With delegates careful not to have a monarch-like ruler, there was a lively debate about how long the president could serve. Some, like Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, supported a single seven-year term without the option of re-election. In this way, he argued, they could avoid an “election king” who “would spare no effort to last a lifetime and … lay a train for his children to follow”. If a president could only serve one term, Williamson wouldn’t be against ten or even 12 years. His colleagues suggested other lengths, from a humble six years to “for life”. Alexander Hamilton was among those campaigning for life in office who thought it would keep the president from focusing too much on re-election to make good decisions.
They also had great problems deciding whether Congress or the general public should elect the president. These discussions dragged on over the summer until the delegates appointed an 11-member “Postponed Affairs Committee” to find a final solution [PDF]. According to the committee’s plan, the president would be elected by an electoral college – a clear compromise between choosing Congress and handing it over to the electorate. The president would stay in office for four years and run for re-election. In early September, the exhausted delegates approved the plan. (North Carolina was the only state to vote against the four-year term.)
Why can a president only serve two terms?
Although the Constitutional Convention had agreed not to impose term limits on the president, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson set a precedent by saying goodbye after just two years. Most future presidents followed suit, as did those who did not fail to win a third term. Ulysses S. Grant, for example, had taken a break after the end of his second term in 1877 and applied for a third in 1880. He almost won the nomination at this year’s Republican National Convention, but lost it to James Garfield. Theodore Roosevelt also declined to seek a third term after his two were over, only to change his mind a few years later. He ran as a third candidate for his newly formed Progress Party in 1912, but Democrat Woodrow Wilson prevailed.
Things changed in the 1940s when Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt celebrated his third and then fourth presidential victory. Between the aftermath of the Great Depression and the US involvement in World War II, it was an especially turbulent time for the nation that likely led voters to prefer consistency over a new person. That said, some people (Republicans especially) felt uncomfortable with such a long reign. Thomas Dewey, who ran Roosevelt in 1944, called it “the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed”.
Roosevelt died just months after his fourth term in office, and members of Congress soon began working on a change to prevent the kind of political dynasty Williamson had been concerned about in 1787. They introduced the 22nd Amendment in March 1947, and it was ratified in February 1951.
Can a President serve more than eight years?
There is an option for the President to spend an extra few years in the Oval Office. The 22nd amendment states that no person who “has been president for more than two years for a term for which another person has been elected president shall not be elected to the office of president more than once”. In other words, if a Vice President (or anyone succeeding him) is serving less than two years of a term for someone who has resigned, died, or been charged, he may technically serve for two separate terms. In this case, you spent 10 years as a POTUS.
Why does the President have term limits but Congress not?
While the term limits for Congress were discussed during the Constitutional Convention, the delegates ultimately decided not to impose these limits on the legislature. As James Madison explained in The federal papers (No. 53), some Founding Fathers believed that senior senators and representatives would benefit.
“As in all of these congregations, some of the members will have superior talents; will become long-term members through frequent re-election; will have a thorough command of public business and may not be unwilling to take advantage of these, ”he wrote. “The greater the proportion of new members and the less information is available about the majority of the members, the more likely they are to fall into the traps that can be set for them.”
In other words, he predicted that career leaders would become experts, while high turnover rates would lead to confusion and corruption. While many people today disagree with this mindset, the fact that the time limits in Congress were not originally included in the Constitution has made it difficult to enact now. Some states have tried this in the past, but the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1995 (by 5 to 4 votes). In order to reinstate it, we would have to pass a completely new amendment.
How can you change the President’s term limits?
Since repealing an old change has no process of its own, changing the two-time limit (or the four-year term) would also require a new change. Two-thirds of the Senate and the House of Representatives must vote in favor of a proposed amendment. After that, at least three quarters of the states must ratify it.
There is another way to get a new amendment passed, but it has never been done before. If two-thirds of state lawmakers approve another constitutional convention, they could draft their own amendment without the approval of Congress. (You would still need 38 states out of 50 to ratify it, however.)
Although the President can sign certificates of amendment as a witness, the gesture is entirely ceremonial. The White House has no authority or involvement in the change process, not even by order of the executive.